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Lebanon : Beirut nightlife rages on despite heat

As temperatures rise, bartenders notice change in clientele tastes

People in this town, it is said, have been known to take a drink from time to time. Bartenders across Beirut agree that once summer hits, they receive a different type of client. These people might be regulars, but once the thermometer starts creeping above 30 degrees on a regular basis, a collective alter-ego takes possession of the clientele.

Suddenly, your most reliable whiskey drinker is asking for a "mojito" - cane sugar, lime, mint, soda water, crushed ice ... rum - and a regular client who used to come in for a few gin and tonic is drinking more than a few margaritas. Call the phenomena by whatever cliche you like - "summer fever" is a popular label - but its presence is undeniable.

"Sure. People are drinking more fruity cocktails, like banana-coladas, strawberry daiquiris, that sort of thing," says Farid Akiki. He's a bartender at Centrale in Gemmayzeh, Beirut's newest "entertainment quarter" to rise into the ascendant. One house favorite, he said, is the Red Bullet, a mix of vodka and fresh raspberries.

Not too far from Centrale - in the somewhat more-established clubbing district of Monnot - Eddie Ayache says the same thing is going on at Ice Bar.

"I'm selling a lot more frozen drinks now," he says, "things that are more refreshing like daiquiris and margaritas." Ayache also noticed a change in attitude among his typically young, mostly student customers. "When they come in the summer, they're here to enjoy the evening, not to forget about a bad exam or assignment that they wrote," he says. "It's more enjoyable to serve in that kind of atmosphere."

Something else that's obvious to the servers is that it's not just what they're drinking, but how much, and when.

"In the summer, they drink much more," observes Alan Chammas at Shah, down the street from Ice Bar. "They're in a much better mood as well. No one's nagging about the winter."

Although it sounds like bartenders might be benefiting from the heat, the security problems that have returned to face greater Beirut have left places like Shah with a significant downturn in tourist receipts.

"I'd say we're about 30 percent down from last summer," says Chammas. "This night [a Sunday] last year, this place was full." There is plenty of space this Sunday, though, with only a few people scattered here and there.

"We're still receiving our usual Lebanese clients," he states, "But we're getting virtually no foreigners - like weirdoes from wherever. Khalijis [tourists from the Gulf] are coming maybe once a month, but nothing like last year."

Some places, on the other hand, seem to have been unaffected by these problems. Less than a month ago, a bomb exploded just off Monnot Street, but in Monnot's District, everyone is dancing on tables and ordering tray after tray of shots.

De Prague is also going strong. Set up on the site of the historic Rose and Crown on Hamra's Makdissi Street, the lounge has been open for about six months. On Thursday, the West Beirut bar was throbbing at full capacity with the crowd drinking and snacking on finger foods. According to bartender Omar Dakdouk\, the vast majority of the clients are Lebanese students, who enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, sipping chilled red and white wines to the mix of blues, jazz, and swing.

Although it's only experienced one winter-to-summer transition, Dakdouk barely had to think when asked to contrast the two seasons. "Now, people are drinking more and tipping less." Well, things are never perfect.

Perhaps the only people who might benefit from the overall downturn are the clients themselves. Places that are having success show that the clientele is still out there. As there has been a drop in tourists, bars are going to have to compete a little harder for their lira. And why not? We all need to feel wanted.

Beirut,08 22 2005
Rami Chalabi
The Daily Star
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